Tag Archives: 19th century

19th Century Life: Literature of the early 1800s

One of the many reasons Betsy wanted to live in Europe was to take part in literary society. It’s difficult to imagine this now, but two hundred years ago, there really wasn’t such a thing as American literature.

In contrast, British literature was flourishing.

The Scottish poet Robert Burns had published his poems in 1786. Perhaps the best-known is “To a Mouse,” with this famous stanza:

But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley.
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

It’s usually translated into English as follows:

But little Mouse, you are not alone,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes of mice and men
Go often awry,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!

PG 1063Burns Naysmithcrop

Robert Burns, by Alexander Nasmyth, via Wikimedia Commons

In England in 1798, William Wordsworth had published his Lyrical Ballads, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge first published The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which has these famous verses:

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

Gothic novels, such as The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe (1794) were just beginning to be published. This would become a popular genre in the following decades.

France and Germany, too, had a wealth of literature during that time period.

In contrast, what did the United States have in the way of accomplished writers? Well, during the late 1600s, a couple of Puritans named Anne Bradstreet and Edward Taylor had published beautiful devotional poems. Here is one of the most well-known of Taylor’s stanzas:

Make me, O Lord, thy spinning wheel complete.
Thy Holy Word my distaff make for me.
Make mine affections thy swift flyers neat
And make my soul thy holy spool to be.
My conversation make to be thy reel
And reel the yarn thereon spun of thy wheel.

Although their poetry is still admired today, I doubt that their works had much appeal for Betsy. She was decidedly worldly in her tastes and interests.

Portrait of Washington Irving by John Wesley Jarvis in 1809

Portrait of Washington Irving by John Wesley Jarvis (1809), via Wikimedia Commons

In 1802, Washington Irving began to publish the first of his satirical essays. I can easily imagine Betsy reading and enjoying those. However, there really was not much else for an American with literary interests to take pride in. Irving’s fiction would not appear for nearly two decades, and the works of Hawthorne, Melville, Emerson, and Thoreau would not be published until mid-century.

And perhaps most astonishing to me of all, in my research I discovered that New York City probably had only one theatre!

Once she arrived in Europe, Betsy was able to attend salons where intellectual ideas were discussed and meet famous writers and artist. She even became close friends with a few well-known women writers. I’ll talk about a couple of these later this week.

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19th Century Life: American vs. European Cities

One question that my early test readers of The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte asked me was why Betsy wanted to live in Europe so badly. What did she have against her own country?

In our current time period, when the United States is the most powerful country in the world and U.S. culture is a dominant global force, it’s hard to realize what the country was like two hundred years ago. The difference between living in an American city and living in a European capital was like the difference we’d experience between living in small-town Wisconsin and Chicago.

Look at the two graphs below, which I created using statistics I found on the Internet.

european cities 1800

U.S. cities

To further drive home the difference, here is an image of Paris in the early 1800s:

Place des Victoires by Victor-Jean Nicolle

Place des Victoires by Victor-Jean Nicolle, via Wikimedia Commons

And here is the description I wrote in the novel of Washington, D.C., in 1804:

The next day, Aunt Nancy took Betsy and Jerome on a carriage tour. After Congress had decided in 1790 to build the nation’s capital in a newly created federal district, President Washington commissioned civil engineer Pierre Charles L’Enfant to devise a plan. Originally from France, L’Enfant wanted to construct a city in the European style with important buildings set far apart to allow for public gardens and plazas. At the time of Betsy and Jerome’s visit, the wide spaces between public buildings were occupied by a mix of uncleared land, small plots with cabins, and recently built houses—giving the city of Washington the disconcerting appearance of a sparsely settled wilderness with a few grandiose structures set down at random. Stories abounded of Congressmen going squirrel hunting within the city or getting mired in a swamp as they drove to their quarters at night.

Betsy was clever, ambitious, and interested in art and literature. Is it any wonder she wanted to be in Europe where the action was?

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Writing Historical Fiction: Period-Appropriate Language

Today, I simply want to share a tool that I found very helpful while I was writing my novel—a website called the Online Etymology Dictionary. It’s a great resource for writing historical fiction. Every time I wondered if a certain word was appropriate for my 19th century characters to use, all I had to do was look it up on that website, and I’d learn when the word came into use and how its meaning evolved over time.

The site contains some fascinating information. For example, I knew from Betsy’s letters that she used the exclamation Fudge! What I didn’t know until I looked it up was that the expression didn’t originally come from the candy. It came from a man’s name—Captain Fudge, who was known for telling lies. That reputation gave rise to sailors using the term fudge whenever they thought they were being told lies or nonsense.

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19th Century Life: Madeira

One of the most popular wines during the early years of the United States was the wine called Madeira. Thomas Jefferson enjoyed it, and according to some reports, the wine was used to toast the Declaration of Independence. Madeira comes from the Portuguese island of the same name, which has a rich volcanic soil. The early United States had no vineyards, so all wines had to be imported, and Madeira has special qualities that allowed it to survive the long, precarious ocean crossing.

During the Age of Exploration, ships often stopped by Madeira to stock up before a long voyage, so the wine makers began to add spirits to the wine during the fermentation process to help preserve it. The other interesting feature about Madeira happened by accident. An unsold shipment of wine returned to the islands and the wine makers discovered that the heat and movement the wine had been subject to during its travels had actually changed its flavor. Manufacturers wanted to recreate this quality, so they began to heat the wine  and expose it to oxygen. The resulting wine’s ability to withstand the rigors of lengthy voyages made it perfect to ship to the American market.

There are many styles of Madeira, made from different grapes. Some are dry, and others are sweet. The most popular variety in Baltimore, Betsy’s hometown, was a variety called Rainwater. It was a pale, delicate variety usually made from Tinta Negra Mole grapes. There is an interesting story about how it got its name. According to legend, some casks were left out on the dock and became diluted when it rained. The unscrupulous dealers sold the wine anyway, and lo and behold, their American customers liked it.

Rainwater Madeira is difficult to find now as it has fallen out of fashion. I’d love to try it sometime, though, just to taste something that Betsy must have tasted.

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Writing Historical Fiction: Researching Period Furniture

The following photographs are pictures I took of period furniture displayed in the Maryland Historical Society. During the writing of the novel, I had to do a lot more research than this, but it gave me start.

bed and bed steps

Notice that the bed steps open up to reveal a potty seat — for when nature calls in the middle of the night. (I seem to be pursuing a theme this week!)

sidechair

Bejamin Latrobe designed this chair for Dolley Madison to use in the drawing room of the President’s Mansion. (It wasn’t called the White House until after the War of 1812.)

inkstand

Charles Pinkney, U.S. Attorney General, used this inkstand to write a draft of the declaration of war against Great Britain in 1812.

dresser

I didn’t use anything like this particular piece of furniture in the novel, but I love the exuberance of this dressing table. The figures on the upper doors represented Commerce and Industry.

armchair

This armchair inspired me to choose teal upholstery for the furniture Betsy’s parents had in their drawing room.

couch

I love the color combination on the Grecian couch. It helped me to realize that the color palette from Betsy’s time period wasn’t quite as somber as I might have assumed.

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Writing Historical Fiction: 19th c. Information Lag

While I was planning the plot of The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte, I had to deal with what I call information lag. In the current age of instant communication, it’s hard to remember how long it once took for news to travel.

In the early 1800s, it took a day to travel the 45 miles from Baltimore to Washington. It could take four days to go from Baltimore to New York. Not only were the travel times long, but mail was not secure. Travelers sometimes amused themselves by opening and reading packets of letters that were in transit.

The times for transatlantic travel were obviously much worse. An exceptionally fast ship could make the crossing in three weeks, but six weeks to two months was more typical. As a result, information lag had a huge impact on the love story in my novel.

Think about it. You’re a lusty young man, impulsive by nature, who is accustomed to using your position as Napoleon’s brother to get what you want. On a brief visit to the United States, you meet the most beautiful, witty girl you’ve ever encountered. You know your brother would expect you to ask him before you decide to marry, but frankly, you’re tired of being treated like a child—and it’s obvious that you have many rivals for the young woman’s hand. Would you want to wait four months for a ship to cross the Atlantic and back again to find out what your family thinks of your choice? Especially knowing that the letter might be lost and you’ll have to start all over again six months from now?

No, I didn’t think so.

Although I’m sure it was exasperating to Betsy and Jerome, as a writer, I was grateful for the information lag because it helped to add considerable tension to the plot. The specifics of how that tension plays out will not be revealed until the book is published. (That’s my contemporary version of information lag.)

vigilante

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This Date in History: September 10, 1813

The War of 1812, largely forgotten today, plays a significant role in my novel The Ambitious Madame Bonsparte, and today is the anniversary of a significant event in the war. Two hundred years ago on this date, the United States Navy won one of the first great victories of its existence. Let me provide a little background.

In June 1812, the United States declared war against Great Britain for several reasons:

• First, the British navy had been stopping American ships and impressing any sailors it found who had been born in Britain—even if they had since become U.S. citizens. This was a violation of U.S. rights as an independent nation.

• Second, Britain was at war with France, and to weaken its enemy, the British navy was trying to stop the United States from trading with France.

• Third, there had been conflicts between the United States and Native Americans of the Northwest Territory, and many Americans suspected that Britain was egging the natives on.

• Fourth, some Americans had their eye on conquering Canada and adding it to our territory.

Even though the United States was the one to declare war, it was a young nation that was woefully unprepared for conflict. The army had fewer than 12,000 men, and the navy had roughly 20 ships. In July 1812, when an American force under General William Hull (no relation as far as I know) invaded Ontario, they were driven out of Canada and forced to surrender, thus losing Detroit.

The U.S. navy went on a ship-building spree to try to gain control of the Great Lakes. On September 12, 2013, Oliver Hazard Perry led a fleet of nine small ships into Lake Erie. Perry’s flagship was the Lawrence, which he had named after his friend James Lawrence, a naval officer who was killed in battle earlier in the war. (Lawrence’s gift to history was the saying, “Don’t give up the ship,” which he commanded his crew as he lay dying.) The other large ship of the U.S. fleet was the Niagara.

The U.S. fleet began the battle by attacking the two largest vessels of the six ships in the British fleet. The Lawrence was badly damaged, and Perry rowed to the Niagara to continue the attack. The Niagara sailed right at the British ships, raking them with broadsides. Within 15 minutes, the British fleet surrendered. Perry sent a famous message to William Henry Harrison, the army commander:

“We have met the enemy, and they are ours.”

The Battle of Lake Erie allowed the United States to retake Detroit, control Lake Erie, and even conquer part of Canada.

For his part, Oliver Hazard Perry became a national hero. He was promoted and given a gold medal. Six years later, he caught yellow fever while on a mission to South America and died at the age of 34.

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19th Century Life: Unmentionables

Saturday, my husband and I went to an interesting exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago called Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity, which examined the clothing portrayed in late 19th-century paintings.

The exhibit naturally made think about how different fashion was in Betsy Bonaparte’s day, and not just because the slim empire gowns she wore as a young woman were so different from the ruched, flounced, ruffled, and bustled gowns of the 1870s. One of the biggest changes was one that doesn’t normally meet the eye—the undergarments of the two periods.

When we think of 19th century undergarments for women, most of us imagine the items I saw at the exhibit: corsets and the loose, long underpants known as drawers. But at the turn of that century, people did not wear underpants. The main undergarment for women was a linen shift, which is a simple underdress. Women wore them under their gowns and then slept in them at night.

Men wore long shirts. Ever wonder why men’s shirts have such long tails? They didn’t wear underpants, so the tails prevented stains from getting on their outer garments. A linen shirt was easier to launder than wool pants. That’s also why paintings of the period show men with coats and waistcoats (vests) hiding most of their shirt except the collar. To show one’s shirt in public was akin to walking around in one’s underwear.

According to Clothing Through American History by Ann Buermann Wass and Mihelle Webb Fandrich, by 1807 a book of instructions for tailors began to recommend that men wear drawers under their outer garments for sanitary reasons.

About time, wouldn’t you say so?

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